A clash between police officers and armed campesinos occupying the Nueva Linda plantation in Champerico, Retalhuleu, left nine dead and many questions unanswered as investigations begin.
Mid-day on August 31 approximately 800 police officers descended on a group of farming families that have been occupying the land since last September in protest of the disappearance of campesino leader Hector Rene Reyes. At least three police officers were killed in the confrontation, and at least six campesinos were shot dead, including two minors. Twenty-four individuals suffered injuries, at least twenty-five campesinos are still missing.
Homes were illegally entered and burned. Journalists, who were beaten and threatened by police during the forty-minute skirmish, allege that three of the six campesinos were executed extrajudicially, and campesinos leaders report that their missing family members are buried in a clandestine mass grave.
Interior Minister Carlos Vielmann immediately blamed the incident on the presence of clandestine groups, and classified the campesinos as “members of organized crime.” Nobel Laureate and current Goodwill Ambassador, Rigoberta Menchu agreed with Vielmann’s position and added that the farmers are “bandits.” Her comments were poorly received by many Guatemalans who feel that the human rights defender and peace activist is a turncoat.
Vielmann and Menchu’s statements reflect the fact that the Nueva Linda farmers were allegedly armed with automatic rifles. According to a Prensa Libre editorial from Sept 2, authorities knew as early as last December that the campesinos were armed with AK-47s, but chose to send in police regardless.
A statement released by the Mutual Support Group, claims that campesinos may have purchased the weapons to protect themselves from heavy drug trafficking that takes place in the region.
Campesino organizations strongly denounce the claim that the evicted families have any ties to organized crime, and insist that the government is to blame for not investigating the September 5, 2003 disappearance of campesino leader, Hector Rene Reyes. Rene Reyes was allegedly abducted by the private security of the owner of the Nueva Linda plantation, Spaniard Carlos Vidal Fernandez Alejos. In protest to the disappearance, the campesinos occupied land on Nueva Linda and stated firmly that they would stay there until the Rene Reyes case was clarified. The government did not attempt to negotiate with the campesinos, but rather issued a court order and deployed police to violently evict them from the land.
Further consequences of the conflict were the arrest of thirty-two campesinos, including one women, Julia Cabrera, a single mother of ten children. According to Cabrera she was selling vegetables on the plantation when the police arrived and started throwing tear gas canisters. She witnessed her sixteen-year-old son David Natanael Lopez shot twice in the back and killed. “But I did not see who took my six-month old baby, because the police grabbed me by the hair and began to hit me,” Cabrera stated.
When she came to, she found herself inside a car and in police custody. Cabrera has been denied the right to attend her son’s funeral and she is concerned for the health and safely of her infant child.
On the national level, congressional representatives passed a resolution yesterday condemning the acts of violence, most of who believe that the police “acted in an erroneous manner.” Independent congressman, Pedro Palma Lau, expressed that the confrontation left the 1996 Peace Accords behind. Today, congress will hear reports on the Nueva Linda incident from Vielmann, Defense Minister Cesar Mendez Pinelo, and Human Rights Ombudsman Sergio Morales.
Mass Graves and Extrajudicial Executions in the “Victory” at Nueva Linda
So far in the investigation, authorities have names, photos, and possibly know the whereabout of the few armed campesinos, and one weapon has been recovered. Yesterday, with a court order, representatives from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) and three congressmen visited the site to verify the existance of a clandestine mass grave. Alexander Toro Maldonado from the regional PDH office in Retalhuleu received the allegation from campesinos that, “within the plantation a mass grave was dug where they [the police] buried the bodies of the campesinos and children killed in the confrontation.”
Sergio Morales said, “[the campesinos] showed us a place where the earth has been moved. They say that it is a grave and that between seven and twenty people are buried there.” While no graves were found, Damian Vail from the National Indigenous and Campesino Coordinator (CONIC), directed justice of peace Hugo Flores and congressmen Raul Robles (UNE), Luis Arguello (GANA) and Alfredo de Leon (ANN) to an area where they found an arsenal of weapons and a septic pit covered over with heavy machinery.
Morales added that campesinos had claimed bodies were thrown in a river but investigators had found no evidence of that. Toro Maldonado, announced that the PDH will request a court order to investigate four sites on the plantation for mass graves.
In addition to investigating claims of mass graves, authorities will investigate allegations of at least three extrajudicial executions on the part of the police. One journalist witnessed an elderly man being shot in the head after he was captured. Police proceeded to shoot the man five more times, kicked and trampled the body and then according to the account, officer Boris Morales yelled, “Victory!” while standing over the dead body. Journalists recount two other incidents of extrajudicial executions.
Reporters claim that after the police discovered that members of the press witnessed them, they chased the reporters down, and beat and verbally abused them. One reporter was hospitalized. Police stole their equiptment and destroyed it, most likely to erradicate evidence of extrajudicial execution.
A History of Nueva Linda and Agrarian Conflict
Three years ago, in need of land, a group of campesinos originally from twenty-two different communities, occupied territory by the side of a highway between the towns of Retalhuleu and Champerico (on the Pacific coast). After two years and with the assistance of a number of land rights and campesinos organizations, the roughly 1,500 campesinos were granted rights to the Monte Cristo farm by the Guatemalan Land Fund.
Among the farmers that received access to Monte Cristo was Hector Rene Reyes, who, in spite of working as the administrator for the Nueva Linda Plantation, became a campesino leader not only at Monte Cristo, but also throughout the region. The owner of the Nueva Linda Plantation, Carlos Vidal Fernandez Alejos, opposed Rene Reyes’s decision to live and work at the Monte Cristo farm.
On August 5, a few days after the Monte Cristo farm was turned over to the campesinos, Fernandez Alejos’ private security visited Rene Reyes with the pretext of picking up shotguns and other arms that were on the Nueva Linda plantation. The security officers asked Rene Reyes to accompany them on a visit of the plantation. Hours later the bodyguards returned without Rene Reyes, saying that they had left the campesino in the nearby town of Retalhuleu.
Since then Rene Reyes has not been seen again. The crime was not investigated, and in order to pressure the National Civil Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the campesinos took action by settling on the Nueva Linda plantation. Authorities never attempted to negotiate with the campesinos, or to further investigate the disappearance. Instead, the plantation owner and authorities sought out a court order to evict the campesinos.
Guatemala has a long history of agrarian conflict, and on June 8th, the country was paralyzed by a nationwide strike organized by a diverse coalition of groups to protest recent violent evictions of indigenous families from disputed land which left 1,500 families homeless. The protesters surrounded government buildings and blocked roads in twenty of the twenty-two departments of the country.
Although the strike was originally planned to last two days, only eight hours into the strike an agreement was reached, ending the strike peacefully. In the agreement, the Supreme Court, agreed to investigate the legality and process of the recent land evictions. President Berger agreed that his administration would promote concrete measures to deal with the agrarian conflict. President Berger also promised to halt land evictions during a ninty day period to review agrarian policy. In exchange for these concessions, the protesters agreed to a moratorium on protests and strikes during those ninty days, after which time they would reconvene with the government to evaluate what, if any, progress that had been made.
While Berger’s promise to halt evictions was broken on August 7 when 113 families were peacefully evicted from a plantation in Escuintla, the eviction at Nueva Linda will redefine relations with campesino groups. The violence in Champerico took place just over a week shy of the ninty day evaluation period. President Berger responded yesterday that this group did not belong to any of the campesino groups who negotiated the moratorium, tacitly implying that this justifies the eviction.
The events of August 31 will intensely shake Guatemala, its internal security policy, and the way it reacts to land takeovers and agrarian conflict. There is supposed to be a march today by the campesino sector and campesino groups have also stated that they will return to the use of massive blockades next week (when the 90 day period ends) to pressure the government to work out a solution that does not include violent evicitons.
While investigations are underway, various land and campesino rights groups have requested that investigations be conducted with transparency, and that the Berger administration settle the root causes of the conflict: the lack of investigation into the disappearance of the Rene Reyes, and poor land distribution and agrarian policy. Unless the latter is reconsidered and readjusted, Guatemala may find itself in another internal conflict that reflects 1980s era mass clandestine graves and extrajudicial executions.
Max Gimbel is the Director of Research at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. GHRC/USA is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, humanitarian organization committed to monitoring, documenting and reporting on the human rights situation in Guatemala while advocating for victims of human rights violations. For more information visit www.ghrc-usa.org or write: firstname.lastname@example.org.